While the playground is a place of fun and learning for kids, it can sometimes be scary. Such was the case for Minnesota mom Kate Swensen and her 6-year-old son Cooper, who has severe, nonverbal autism. After they were “belittled” at a playground designed for children with special needs, Kate took to Facebook posting a tearful plea for increased autism awareness.
The incident, which occurred on the eve of April’s Autism Awareness Month, left her shunned from the one public place her family felt comfortable. “As he gets bigger and older, the places we can go get smaller,” Kate tells Babble.
The mom of two shared that Cooper was rolling on the jungle gym’s platform and unintentionally pushed a girl down the slide. “The dad lost it on Cooper. He yelled at him and me,” proclaims Kate, who immediately made sure the girl was OK, then apologized and explained that her son has severe autism and didn’t see the girl or mean to hurt her. Still, the father continued the verbal attack and “humiliated” the Swensens.
Kate believes that because Cooper has an “invisible disability” and looks like a typical kid, people don’t understand and chalk his erratic behaviors to bad parenting — like, in this case, how Cooper laughed and ran off during the father’s scolding. Kate says the goal of her video — which now has 628K views, 9.8K shares, and 4K comments — was not to reciprocate shame on the family but, rather, start a conversation about autism. “How do we go out and keep him safe and keep the people around him safe?” asks Kate, who only wears sneakers to be on-the-ready for her spontaneous runner.
She doesn’t have the answer yet, but through Finding Cooper’s Voice, her online “secret world” chronicle, she hopes to eventually help families “figure out how to co-exist and not hide out in our homes.” The online village has changed her life with the realization that she is not alone. In just four months since the site’s Facebook page launched, over 28K followers have applauded her honest portrayal of autism realities — the good and the bad.
About 1 in 68 children have autism spectrum disorder, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Like other parents of these many children affected by this disorder, Kate longs for her joyful son to be treated “just like any other kid” but with an extra level of understanding because “he tries to engage but he doesn’t know how.”
Though we can’t turn back time to erase that traumatic encounter for Kate, we can all help prevent another one from happening — by learning the signs of autism and remembering that disabilities can be invisible to the uninformed eye.